There’s no doubt that choirs have been one of the pandemic’s greatest casualties. Despite stories and scientific reports having often been contradictory on the risks of group singing in enclosed spaces, the almost universal response of governments has been to shut them down. From church choirs to choral societies, singers all over the world have been silenced, making the gradual lifting of restrictions and the return to rehearsal and performance a cause for much celebration.

Elizabeth Scott, Music Director of SPC’s 18-30 ensemble VOX, rehearses with masks. All photos supplied

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs is no exception. Australia’s oldest and largest choral organisation was in the final stages of rehearsing for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra when it all fell apart. “We were due to have a piano call on 15 March with Donald Runnicles and instead, Emma Dunch the CEO of the SSO came to the rehearsal and told us that it was all cancelled,” explains Hannah Mason, SPC’s General Manager. “We had no idea at that point how much it would affect us. We still thought that we might be able to perform at Easter in April.”

As concerts going forward were axed one by one, it gradually became clear that the threat of COVID-19 was not something that was going to go away any time soon and that singers were going to be frontline arts casualties. “For some in our choirs, the joy of being in a group singing together is the main focus in their lives,” says Mason. “Overnight this was taken away and some have really suffered mentally and physically from not have that activity and involvement.”

Right from the start, anecdotal stories started circulating of choirs in Germany and the US who had carried on singing in the early days of the pandemic and then tragically lost members. Governments acted fast. “There was no science or research at this point, so we had no recourse and just had to shut down,” Mason remarks. SPC’s Music Director Brett Weymark concurs: “In this country, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has picked up COVID through choral singing,” he told Limelight in an interview earlier this year about Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our  Time.

Socially distanced seating in SPC’s new rehearsal room

Despite Australia’s successes in managing the pandemic, coming together in any kind of room to sing was clearly off limits. Like their fellow choirs worldwide SPC put on its collective thinking cap. It felt important not just to keep everyone engaged but to find some effective way to connect through singing at home in order to keep voices in reasonable shape. “We thought about outdoors, Zoom, home recordings, anything that we could do to keep going,” says Mason. “Ultimately, we produced two projects.”

The first idea came to fruition on Easter Saturday with the release of the timely and consolatory chorus Ruht Wohl from Bach’s St John Passion. The choir’s smaller ensemble – the SPC Chamber Singers – along with a handful of orchestral players rehearsed the music at home and recorded themselves with the results edited together to form a virtual choir. The ensuing video has now been watched on YouTube over 17,000 times.

The second project, Time and Place, was a realisation of a new composition by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, a work the choir had commissioned for its largely abandoned 2020 centenary celebrations. Human Waves tells the stories of people from all over the world who have come to Australia and their various journeys and experiences. Over 500 choristers were invited to record each movement of the work. “We received over 740 videos and our project partners at TENAlphas worked day and night to feature every single person across the seven movements,” says Mason. “We screened the resulting film on our 100th birthday – 9 September 2020 – so we did manage to celebrate the centenary despite everything we had gone through.”

The first hurdle for any choir hoping to come together in a virtual sense during lockdown was the Zoom rehearsal. It’s fair to say that the videotelephony and conferencing company has had a good pandemic with millions of users utilising the freemium-model service that allows up to 100 participants to communicate concurrently online. Or does it? Just how does a Zoom rehearsal work as far as a choir is concerned? “Badly!” says Mason. “You can’t actually sing together so you sit on your own at home and sing into your computer. No one else can hear you and you just have to hope you are singing the right notes!”

What it did offer was an opportunity for a social catch up and a chance to work on notes and language. “It wasn’t for everyone, but a good number of people gave it a go,” Mason says. “There was definitely a more social side to the Zooms though, everyone had the opportunity for a chat with everyone rather than just in the little group of people they might talk to at rehearsals.”

Brett Weymark leads a St John Passion Zoom rehearsal

“There is a weird sort of democracy to Zoom rehearsals,” Weymark observes. “I’ve got to know my own choir better because in a Zoom you interact with people in a different way.  Rehearsals can be a terribly formal space, and at the break everyone wants to chill out a bit, but there has actually been a social element to a Zoom rehearsal.”

Singers appear in what Weymark describes as “the classic Brady bunch” gallery format with the conductor the only person not muted, a situation that is far from ideal. “You can drill a little bit, but you can’t really tell how they are doing,” he explains. “As long as they keep moving on the screen you know things are going well, but it’s very good for conceptual learning and talking about the piece.”

“The lag makes it impossible to really rehearse,” adds Mason. “It is all one way, so not at all effective to tune the choir or hear the group, but practically it allows the choir to work through music, ask questions and then go away and practice. By the end, though, our conductors were happy to say goodbye to them, they served a purpose, but they could never replace a live rehearsal.”

A  women’s sectional rehearsal over Zoom

It was late in 2020 before things started to open up again allowing SPC to come together. First up were the Chamber Singers rehearsing Fauré’s Requiem, which they performed in October 2020 at St Andrews Cathedral. “The first time I heard them sing again I burst into tears,” says Mason. “It was just so wonderful to hear it again.”

For rehearsals, meticulous COVID plans were drawn up and reviewed by an epidemiologist. At first, singing took place in masks with choir members kept at a considerable distance from each other. Over the months, the masks have gone but they still try to keep at least a metre between singers at all times.

A bigger challenge has been getting everyone back up to performance standard since many members simply closed their scores in March and didn’t open them again until 2021. To help the process, Mason instigated a Choral Kickstart course to help get people back into vocal shape. Equally tricky has been navigating the array of available information, working out what are guidelines and what public health orders, what exemptions are allowed, and what constitutes a professional organisation versus a community group. “It has been extremely difficult to navigate through what we can and can’t do,” she admits.

Although they haven’t used them with a really large choir yet, SPC’s new rehearsal studio at the refurbished Walsh Bay Arts Precinct has been a bonus. “It is all brand new and acoustically set up for singing which is wonderful,” says Mason. “Having our own space has also meant we can follow protocols more easily, so this has definitely helped.”

VOX outside SPC’s new Walsh Bay Arts Precinct rehearsal studio

This year, SPC has already performed Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe at St Andrews Cathedral with both choir and orchestra heavily spaced out. Capacity was reduced to around 360 people and audience members were required to wear masks and enter and leave by three different doors. Inside the cathedral social distancing was maintained, there were no intervals, and there were no physical programs to avoid any chance of contamination. The post-concert survey was overwhelmingly positive, proving just how much people had missed the chance to attend concerts and hear people singing.

With more regulatory easing happening this week, it looks like SPC has finally turned the corner. “The choirs are thrilled to be back singing again,” says Mason. “Some people are still cautious and want to wait for the vaccine before they return, but the majority are raring to go.”

Next up will be Bach’s St John Passion at The Concourse in Chatswood, a concert that will also feature two reflections on St John by Australian composers Joe Twist and Shelley Brookes. Both works were commissioned for last year’s centenary and this will be their world premiere performances. After that, they will focus on a concert that includes Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a dynamic work with plenty of tongue-twisting lyrics guaranteed to get the droplets flying. Assuming there are no further outbreaks, for choirs it looks like a case of onwards and upwards at last.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs Bach’s St John Passion at The Concourse in Chatswood on Saturday 3 April and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on 22 May at Sydney Town Hall

Supported by the City of Sydney

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